British Rail Design Standardisation

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 12.47.18 PMI have been asked to contribute a short essay to the forthcoming re-publication of the British Rail style manual…

The project is being directed by the designer, Wallace Henning. He’s a neighbour of ours…

You can order and contribute through kickstarter through Wallace’s website.

I remember when Wallace first became interested in this a few years ago…

I always try an encourage enthusiasm…and it has really worked here.

Good for Wallace.

Mostly, the people who are interested in this are train or typography types…I am both of these, but I am mostly interested in the idea of a big integrated system.

Here the text I made

Bigger, Faster, Sharper, Clearer…

Machines, System, Identity, and the Modern Railway-Ensemble

We shape our tools; thereafter, our tools shape us…

Culkin & McCluhan, 1967


The four-binder British Railway Corporate Identity Manual (BRM), issued in the period 1965-1970, is generally understood as a document pertaining to the development of corporate identity…it’s traditionally been of interest to people who are enthusiastic about railways and design. However, the scale and scope of the railway system in Britain give this document a wider significance beyond the immediate context of the railway.

The importance of the railway system as the exemplar of an integrated and coherent machine-system should not be underestimated. The ubiquity of the railway system throughout Britain made a wider range of people familiar with ideas usually associated with the disciplines and efficiencies of factory organisation.

The development of this integrated and standard system, getting bigger and speeding up all the time, has been recognised by a number of cultural historians as providing for a significant recasting of modern metaphysics. The acceleration of the railway system, and the expansion of its activities, transformed the concepts of time and space. Indeed, the advent of the railway system was at the origin of standard time across Britain, and, later, the international arrangement of time-zones. Schivelbusch (2014) describes the effect of these changes in relation to the prevailing mind-set of the nineteenth century. Nowadays, he suggests, we are on the brink of the same possibilities in relation to the acceleration and expansion of the digital sphere…Back in the early 1960s, the railway machine-ensemble was shifting from steam power to electrical and diesel traction.

In the context of the British Government’s White Heat of post-WW2 technological development, the BRM also marks an important step-change in the scale and speed of the machine-ensemble of the modern economy, and in the character of its interaction with both the individual and the social body.

The new road and motorway signage, designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Clavert, the BRM marks an important step-change in the systemic experience of Modern Britain. Calvert and Kinneir’s Transport typeface, designed to be legible at speed, ad first used on the Preston by-pass, is as significant a piece of typographic design as Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface from 1916.

The machine-ensemble is a system that transcends the technological specifics at its beginnings. The history of the machine-ensemble depends as much upon architecture, engineering, planning and urbanism. The ensemble develops and grows so that technology, system, environment, and experience, each combine to impact upon identity issues. The ensemble develops through mechanical, logical and cognitive stages.

Accordingly, it is worth quickly describing the historical development of the machine-system, and thinking about how design provides a consistent interface between people and systems. In this context, the wider significance of the BRM becomes clearer.

The Machine (Ensemble)

The machine-ensemble is a term, first coined by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in relation to the 19C railway system. The term recognises the scale, scope and speed of machine integration so that the systemic and mechanical workings of the whole are given expression through this term. As the term suggests, the ensemble is formed from a group of connected machines of different sorts. The whole thing is a network system that becomes a meta-machine that extends way beyond its immediate context.

One way of thinking about this, is to imagine an enormous train set…where all the parts move in relation to each other…and where everyone and everything arrives safely. Just by thinking about this, you can see how complex and sophisticated such a system would have to be. It’s the integration and co-ordination that turns it into an ensemble. In practical terms, things have to be in the right place at the right time.

You can get a clear sense of what Schivelbusch means by looking at the integrated railway timetables for Europe. The parts all work in relation to each other.

The machine-ensemble concept develops an earlier idea of the human body as a form of precise clockwork…and applies the same form of mechanical precision across a much greater field…observation and logic reveal cause-and-effect in terms of consistent and general rules. The machine-ensemble of the railways system is the mechanical expression of a system of logic.

The second idea is that the speed of the machine ensemble is not constant…it’s accelerating. We can trace the acceleration of modern life through stages of foot, horse, railway, and internal combustion. Later, there are jet powered, solid-state, and digital stages. Each of these technologies provides the basis for a step-change, or quantum advance, in the speed of everything…and with an opportunity to re-present it, so that our engagement with the speeding ensemble remains safe. The idea of safety is important because it protects us and keeps the ensemble going. Like the shining city, the railway is never allowed to stop, it’s always at work.

The speed of the machine-ensemble changes the way we see, and experience, the world. What I mean is that, as the system has developed, accelerated and grown, we have needed new ways of representing the system as we experience it. The modern poster, distinguished by colour, scale, and the integration of word and image, provided for a form of communication that could be read at distance, at a glance, and whilst moving. But, the speed of the machine-ensemble also changed painting, film, literature and music! In these circumstances, standard and consistent forms of livery also need to be developed in relation to the systemic acceleration of the ensemble.

The integration of elements and the automation of function that is implicit in the machine-ensemble change the way we see the world…it’s the modern matrix; but in mechanical form, and presented as an immersive and dynamic, experiential phenomenon.

Systems and Timetables – The Great Standardisation

A machine is not just a tool…it provides for a kind of logical (inevitable) relation between resources, actions and people. Charles Babbage, the 19C computer pioneer understood that the arrangement of machines could be organised so as to promote efficiency and economy.

The division of labour was first conceptualised by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations  (1776). Smith used the famous example of the pin workshop to illustrate his point. The division of labour, within the craft based factory, allows for a massively increased productivity of output. Implicit in Smith’s concept was that of the specialisation of labour. The combining, by Smith, of efficiency, production and rational self-interest, provided the template for the industrial revolution.

At first the machines were understood as powered tools, and arranged in relation to the process and power of the factory. Later, the machines were arranged, a bit like the keys of a qwerty typewriter keyboard, so as to optimise production. The work of Henry Ford, at the beginning of the 20C, re-orientated the factory around the implacable demands of the production line. It wasn’t entirely surprising that, in these circumstances, worker performance was scritinised in increasingly scientific terms. This provided the basis for Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies and the elaboration of evidence-based scientific management.

In its early phase, the industrial revolution was a slightly distant, northern, and separate thing from the London political elite. By the 1830s, the success of the industrialists, their wealth, power, and influence, had made them significant for the political elite. The northern industrial base was assimilated into democratic politics, along with its values of self-help, free-trade and co-operation, through the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The brutally normative physical structures of school, prison, and factory, required for industrial efficiency were augmented by a series of cognitive and conceptual standardisations. These were implemented during a remarkable period after about 1840. The new standards were applied in the technical, moral and social spheres…and expressed themselves through the various improvements of the standard one-penny letter rate, the integrated of railway timetable by Bradshaw, and the standardisation of engineering threads by Joseph Whitworth. Patrick Joyce has written about the normative potential of these standards in relation to the specific sociology of Manchester and the structure of liberal politics.

The graphic organisation and presentation of Bradshaw’s publications, greatly facilitated by lithographic printing, gave visual expression to the new systemic quality of the railway network.

The organising principles, of division and specialisation, and arrangement, had first been made evident at the Portsmouth Block Mill (1796). Samuel Bentham, Henry Maudslay, and Marc Brunel, arranged the factory so that steam power, machine tools, and the division of labour were combined to orchestrate a fantastic mechanical ballet of production. According to this organisation, the rhythms of production were increasingly set by the tempo of the machine. Also, individual actions were coordinated as elements within a system of production. This was the theatre of machines; and the public flocked to see it.

Balancing the productive output of this machinery required the observational control of both resources and machines, along with the disciplinary control, by management, of the quality and quantity of work produced through the direction of human agency. In the early factory environment, control and command were understood as observational and disciplinary functions.

The 19C mathematician and logician Charles Babbage considered the design of factory systems so as to align their various activities and so as to optimise efficiency (profit). Babbage understood that standardisation, automation, and integration, were each linked. The issues of quality control, efficiency and productivity addressed by Babbage suggested several new (cybernetic) ideas – sequential organisation, branching, and looping, for example. These mechanisms allowed for the factory system to begin directing itself towards an optimal level of productive efficiency.

Railway System, Design Consistency, and Psychological Identity

By the 1850s, the extension of democracy had engendered a series of normative structures that effectively controlled the population through disciplinary training. Industrial discipline and democratic responsibility were thereby associated in the social formation of the population. The routines of industrial work, production, and life, were aligned through the working day.

Economy, democracy, identity and observation each combined to shape this system for 100 years. At the same time, the system converged toward an aggregating, automated, and integrated standard of parts.

The observational (or panoptic) control of manufacturing, pioneered by Bentham and Babbage, was enshrined in FW Taylor’s Theory of Scientific Management (1913) and the increasingly accurate measurement of time, motion, and resources. The collection of data associated with the production, efficiency and profit of manufacturing processes (not just the financial accounting) is now central to every part of the economy.

One of the first organisations to use scientific management techniques in Britain was the Northern Eastern Railway, based in York. The new techniques had a profound influence of Frank Pick. Later, when Frank Pick was at London Transport, he was instrumental in aligning the activities and experience of London Transport into a coherent whole across London.

Nowadays and with the massive processing power of computers, we can make those calculations continuously and automatically. This continuous and dynamic process has begun, as a function of the scale of operations, to effect the various outcomes. Observation, measurement, and classification, are not neutral; these activities shape the world; they form the world, and that requires force.

All of these things that I’ve described, above, combine to impact on the psychological formation of modern subjectivity. In cognitive terms, human beings are hard-wired to move towards what they recognise as familiar…so the visual representations of modern life provide for a powerful normative experience of what to expect when you leave the house!

The Flynn Effect takes its name from the work of James Flynn. The Effect describes a sustained rise in IQ over the long term of the, say, the 20C. The effect is quite specific in that improvements are specifically associated with the spatial and visual intelligence that is systematically promoted through the dynamic urban environments of the modern world. It turns out that living in cities makes you cleverer!

You can see this most clearly when you consider the mass-transit systems of cities around the world. Each is defined as a system which prompts consistent and disciplined behavior amongst its managers and employees, and across its passenger traffic.

The objects and signs of modernity prompt us to act in ways that optimise the system…first we make our tools (machines and systems) and then they form us.

Nowadays and with the development of the Internet proceeding at pace, we are beginning to see the same kinds of effects in relation to the cloud. Gordon Welchman, at Bletchley Park, during WW2, was the first person to recognise that signals traffic (data) would, in the end, produce its own ensemble. Today, we are just beginning to the pattern and form of the cloud…

It turns out that the consistent graphic representation of these structures and systems is about much more than corporate identity.


Beaumont M & Freeman M (2007)

The Railway and Modernity Oxford, Peter Lang

Crary J (2001) Suspensions of Perception Cambridge Ma, MITP

Glancy J (2012) Giants of Steam London, Atlantic

Joyce P (2003) The Rule of Freedom London, Verso

Leach N (ed) (2002) The Hieroglyphics21 of Space London, Routledge

Lovegrove K (2004) Railway – Identity, Design and Culture London, LK

Pick D (1993) War Machine New Haven Ct, YUP

Revill G (2012) Railway London, Reaktion

Sawday J (2007) Engines of the Imagination London, Routledge

Schivelbusch W (2014) The Railway Journey Oakland, UCP

Spufford F & Uglow J (1996) Cultural Babbage London, Faber

Taylor S (ed) (2001) The Moving Metropolis London, LK

Van Creveld M (2004) Supplying War Cambridge, CUP

Virilio P (2006) Speed and Politics LA, Semiotext(e)

Wolmar C (2007) Fire & Steam London, Atlantic


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